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To all the colleges I loved before

How the coming of age genre creates unrealistic expectations for college admissions

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This article contains spoilers for “To All the Boys I Loved Before: Always and Forever” (2021), “Booksmart” (2019) and “Lady Bird” (2017). 

It’s winter. About midway through “To All the Boys I Loved Before: Always and Forever,” the third installment of the film trilogy based on Jenny Han’s young adult series, our protagonist Lara Jean Covey is eating dinner when she gets a notification from Stanford. Decisions are out. She gasps and runs up to her room to look at her application status. Lara Jean believes that her relationship with her high school sweetheart Peter Kavinsky — who has already been admitted on a lacrosse scholarship — is riding on the decision, and she’s desperate to join him in California, partly out of fear that their relationship won’t withstand long-distance. She opens the letter … and she has been rejected. Her mind begins to wander. She replays her memories with Peter, resigned that a future together would be impossible to achieve. It isn’t until the end of the movie that she realizes that distance doesn’t define her and Peter’s relationship. When time comes for college to start, it is a new part of their lives — she has grown up. 

For the undergraduate Class of 2025, the college admissions season has just ended. Like Lara Jean, these students may feel ready to embark on a new part of their lives — to step across the threshold of adulthood. But even before getting there, high schoolers often bring preconceived notions of what college may look like, and what the whole admissions process looks like. Pop culture shapes these ideas, specifically what we see on the big screen. Movies, such as “Lady Bird” (2017), “Booksmart” (2019) and “To All the Boys I Loved Before: Always and Forever” (2021) are well-known films in the contemporary canon of the coming-of-age genre. Among other situations and plot points, the college admissions process often plays a major role in the overall arc of the story. However, since these movies are a romanticized version of reality, could this be a problem?

“Lady Bird,” for example, tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, her strained relationship with her mother and her view of her hometown, Sacramento. She is a senior at an all-girls Catholic school, Immaculate Heart, with average grades who dreams of going to an East Coast school despite financial difficulties. Managing to secure a spot off of the waitlist for NYU, Lady Bird’s story ends with her missing her home and thus her family; the closing shot is Lady Bird calling her mom.

Another film, “Booksmart,” features the friendship of high school seniors Amy and Molly, who are at the top of their class but considered pretentious by their classmates. On the day prior to their graduation, Molly confronts her classmates, who are making fun of her, and she flaunts her acceptance to Yale. However, her classmates, who had a good time during high school, also got into prestigious universities and even received great job offers. Furious, Molly tells Amy they should have enjoyed their time in high school more and has the grand plan of attending their classmate Nick’s party. They have a night of crazy adventures to get to the party and a disagreement regarding their friendship dynamic before the movie ultimately ends with them walking the stage, healing the ties with their classmates. 

Despite the entertainment value, the problem with film portraying college is that story arcs across the “coming-of-age” genre are quite formulaic. Their resolutions, while some are more complicated than others, usually end on a positive note: with college acceptances and wild parties and bittersweet graduation ceremonies. For the sake of a plot, their stories tend to wrap up in a nice neat bow, and as an audience we can only expect that good things come for the characters after the film ends. Even within the story, the plot typically is generous to characters, giving them acceptances to prestigious universities without showing the hard or realistic work that it took to get in them. While these films encourage viewers to aim high, since the story arc is “perfect,” these expectations that derive from the films often are often unrealistic.

What these films don’t prepare students for is the vast amount of extracurricular activities, the competition, the strenuous application process are hard to navigate for students from under-resourced backgrounds and the fact that it can all end with an unlucky draw from your dream school or inaccessible financial aid from your top pick. While this genre traditionally aims for romanticizing everyday life, if we’re doing a coming-of-age film, should we not try to make it more realistic? We should have a movie that shows the trials and tribulations of the admissions process, as well as the privileges and disadvantages people have in it.

Relatedly, coming-of-age films are infamous for not showing diversity of narratives and these protagonists are often from white, male and/or wealthy backgrounds. This mixed with the application process does not reflect on how hard everything can be for those from marginalized and low-income backgrounds. For instance, not all schools are options due to cost, there are lack of resources and access to additional help and high school counselors may not be helpful for certain students. Thus, there are fewer opportunities, fewer options and fewer acceptances for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Also, these movies usually fail to acknowledge that state schools and community college aren’t a bad thing. These options could be more preferable due to cost, flexibility in requirements and the pacing of the degree with full-time or part-time pathways. I understand that these films use famous schools for name recognition, but portraying university as “perfection” can project elitist attitudes toward what isn’t considered prestigious. If we depicted these schools more often in a positive light in film, we would get more realistic endings.

The films also don’t hone in on students doing things out of necessity, both in high school and in selecting a college. For instance, in “Booksmart,” the two girls sacrifice their high school experience to ensure that their futures would be paved out. While it is somewhat worth it due to the connections they would get at their universities, the movie, in a way, undervalues their hard work and does not deep dive into why they felt they needed to do so; instead, it masks it as pretentiousness. It is not impossible to do well in school and have a good time, but for under-resourced communities, this may be harder to accomplish due to other responsibilities. The movie leaves this narrative out. Having fun as you grow up is not impossible if you want to attend an elite university, but students may be in a situation where they have to prioritize school. Getting amazing job offers out of high school and college acceptances without as much effort is a privilege. 

There is also practicality when it comes to choosing a school. For me, I picked Stanford not only because of the connections that come with it, but also because it had the best financial aid offer. I wish I could have been in the position where it doesn’t matter entirely where I go or what I do, as long as I am happy. But that is not the case. In fact, for most people, money is the main factor for choosing a school. Had Stanford cost too much money, I would have likely been at another school. Not having to consider the value of a college degree (the cost, name recognition and increased opportunities) is a benefit. Not having to go to a college to get the same opportunities or rejecting a college out of spite are, again, privileges. 

While the overall resolutions of movies may be unattainable, these films do have moments that are good to see. Molly and Amy reflect on how they viewed their classmates, losing their stuck-up attitude, and learn that not everything needs to go according to plan and friendship doesn’t have to be a proximal thing. Lara Jean and Peter know that love for each other can exist in different locations and they don’t need to follow each other to achieve a perfect romance. Lady Bird, when her parents make the huge sacrifice to refinance their house so she can attend NYU, appreciates her family, hometown and the stories derived from it through her life there. They are ready to move on with the lessons they gained from their childhood, and college marks a new chapter in their lives.

But what makes this a different chapter? Does anything really come to a close, our lives perfectly sequenced in segments, where certain milestones create a threshold? This idea of closure, something I have dealt with as a frosh during a pandemic, where the events have meshed into one entire sequence despite my graduation, is a myth in and of itself. Not everything has its perfect ending where we have everything figured out at 18. And we certainly cannot predict what will happen in college, what paths and opportunities may open up and that it may not be like the movies we hoped it would turn out to be.

This article is part of a series on the myth of coming-of-age.

Contact The Daily’s The Grind section at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is a staff writer for Arts & Life and contributing writer for Opinions and The Grind at the Stanford Daily. She is from Stockton, California and is studying English with a track in Creative Writing. Her favorite subjects to write about are TV, film, books, theatre, activism, and lifestyle. Contact Kyla Figueroa at kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.